Tag Archives: Jim Hendry

Half Decent: Setting Expectations for the 2011 Cubs (pt. 1)

When I was in high school, one of the youth leaders at my church routinely discussed three topics more than any other: the unholy trilogy of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. It really didn’t matter what biblical story or teaching we were covering, the focus was almost always redirected to the condemnation of one or more of those three vices.

I remember one lesson in particular in which we were told that physical attraction should be the least of our concerns when deciding who to date or court or arrange a marriage with. While anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that appearance isn’t the most important attribute in a significant other, trying to tell a teenager to ignore it completely is like persuading a shark to eschew seafood.

After hearing variations on the diatribe for a few weeks, all the members of my youth group knew the answers we were supposed to be giving and that they directly conflicted with the protests of our hormones. So when our teacher asked us what qualities we would look for in a potential boyfriend or girlfriend, my fellow classmate Dwight Stowers attempted a compromise between the proffered high moral ground and his basic primal urges into a succinct summation of what he wanted in a woman:

“Half decent?”

As Cub fans, we find ourselves in a similar struggle between what we want and what the baseball gods are telling us we can have. While by no means immoral, it’s looking pretty unrealistic that fans of baseball on Chicago’s North Side will ever find ourselves in a long-term relationship with a 10—but is it too much to ask for a 6 or 7?

I’m setting out to determine just that: can the Cubs be half decent in 2011? Forget the World Series. Set aside those playoff aspirations. I just want to find out if next year’s Cubs might be looking down at .500. But before I do, let’s take a look at where this year’s team is, because I’m not all that confident that the hot stove will be cooking up a very big buffet of changes (despite how we know Jim Hendry feels about big buffets).

Tomorrow I’ll take the same this year/next year approach to the pitchers, but for now let’s look at the hitters and a couple of stats from Baseball-Reference.com that compare Cubs hitters to league average.

Geovany Soto 27 305 54 7.6 .281 .397 .506 .903 133 .711
Marlon Byrd 32 427 70 6.9 .314 .377 .470 .847 119 .669
Tyler Colvin* 24 273 43 6.0 .263 .324 .538 .862 119 .616
Alfonso Soriano 34 363 56 5.9 .266 .329 .532 .861 119 .605
Starlin Castro 20 295 40 5.3 .306 .353 .440 .793 105 .558
Kosuke Fukudome* 33 281 35 4.9 .247 .353 .400 .753 95 .525
League Average 4.6 .257 .326 .402 .728 94 .496
Derrek Lee 34 441 48 4.1 .247 .331 .388 .719 86 .440
Ryan Theriot 30 412 40 3.6 .284 .320 .327 .647 69 .387
Aramis Ramirez 32 329 33 3.6 .220 .274 .417 .690 76 .378
Team Total 4018 484 4.5 .258 .322 .409 .731 89 .487
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2010.

Above are listed the 9 Cubs hitters averaging at least 2 plate appearances per game, sorted by OWn% (Offensive Winning Percentage). Assuming average pitching and defense, a team of 9 Geovany Sotos could expect a .711, thanks in large part to the 7.6 Runs Created per Game (RC/G) you’d expect from a guy with a .903 OPS. Not bad for a number-8 hitter.

What really sticks out to me on this table, aside from the impressive contributions of the two rookies, is that only three of the Cubs’ kinda-sorta-everyday players are below league average in this category. Derrek Lee is the barometer, as his .440 OWn% is just a shade higher than the Cubs’ current .440 win percentage. Keep in mind that we haven’t factored in pitching yet, but Lee is still the personification of the Cubs offensive woes this season.

We should also consider that these numbers aren’t rated by position. Lee is hitting below average for a Major League Baseball player. At his power-hitting first base position, the situation is much worse: he’s tied for last among NL first basemen in OPS (.719 with the Marlins’ Jorge Cantu).

But the Cubs can’t pin all their woes on Derrek Lee. Ryan Theriot and Aramis Ramirez have been much, much worse, and a team made up of Theriots and Ramirezes would really, really suck (though, shockingly, not as bad as the .343 Pirates). Those three below-average players (with the bench players and pitchers figured in as well) have plummeted far enough below the league average to bring the entire team down to a .487 OWn%. That’s a little higher than the team’s actual win percentage, about 5 or 6 wins better but not really all that much closer to half decent either.

Whether the Cubs are unlucky or their pitching and defense have been bad enough to bring the team down further I don’t know. But I will say that having the only below-average contributors to your offense hitting leadoff, 3rd, and 4th does not typically lead to a lot of wins. Also, if you’re not a fan of the OWn% stat, you can see that OPS+ (On-base plus Slugging adjusted for park factor and compared to league average) tells a very similar story.

Geovany Soto 27 305 54 7.6 .318 .281 .397 .506 .903 133 .711
Alfonso Soriano 34 363 56 5.9 .301 .266 .329 .532 .861 119 .605
Tyler Colvin* 24 273 43 6.0 .308 .263 .324 .538 .862 119 .616
Marlon Byrd 32 427 70 6.9 .345 .314 .377 .470 .847 119 .669
Starlin Castro 20 295 40 5.3 .345 .306 .353 .440 .793 105 .558
Kosuke Fukudome* 33 281 35 4.9 .272 .247 .353 .400 .753 95 .525
League Average 4.6 .300 .257 .326 .402 .728 94 .496
Derrek Lee 34 441 48 4.1 .293 .247 .331 .388 .719 86 .440
Aramis Ramirez 32 329 33 3.6 .225 .220 .274 .417 .690 76 .378
Ryan Theriot 30 412 40 3.6 .319 .284 .320 .327 .647 69 .387
Team Total 4018 484 4.5 .300 .258 .322 .409 .731 89 .487
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/3/2010.

Above 100 is above average and below 100 is below average, even though the league average somehow works out to 94; I guess a league average player is below average. The point here is that the Cubs hitters (with a few critical exceptions) are hitting above average. If the Cub infield was half-decent offensively, this team might not be half bad. But ifs don’t count for much in baseball. Unfortunately, that’s all they (or any team, for that matter) has to look forward to. So let’s look ahead, shall we?

There’s no use complaining about the big contracts the Cubs are saddled with, because (as is the gist of the complaint) they aren’t going anywhere. Maybe the Cubs get rid of Fukudome. Soriano and Ramirez are here to stay. Marlon Byrd has been a bargain, and Tyler Colvin, Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto, and Blake DeWitt are dirt cheap for the time being. So out of a 9-man group of regulars (4 OF rotation, 4 infielders, and a catcher), the Cubs have 4 cost-controlled contracts, 1 below-market free agent, 3 veterans almost certain to be overpaid, and an empty first-base slot that may very well be filled by Derrek Lee again.

That’s not as much of a doomsday glut of crippling contracts as Cub detractors have made it out to be, but forget about the money for a second. Just looking at the prospective lineup for 2011, will the Cubs be half decent? To simplify things, I’ll just use a letter-grade scale.

DeWitt’s 2010 OPS is squarely at 100 (.527 OWn%) and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect him to be at or above league average. C+, maybe? Colvin seems like a perfect candidate for a sophomore slump, so I’ll put him at a C-. Castro, however, seems to be improving, and I’d predict a solid B for him in 2011. Fukudome is the definition of a career C- player. Maybe the Cubs deal him away, but even if he stays with the club, he’s not the guy bringing this team down. Soriano has the potential to be anywhere on the grading curve. I’m hoping for (and predicting) a B, but you know a raging F isn’t out of the question. I’ll put Soto down for an A and Marlon Byrd for a B, which leaves us with two big question marks. Ramirez put up an A+ week to bring his F of a season up to a D. I don’t know that we can count on him to ever return to B/B- status, but I don’t think a C is too much to expect, do you?

The final spot is first base, and I won’t predict what Derrek Lee might do, but I will say I think Jim Hendry, with his job on the line, is quite capable of adding a league-average first baseman. Put a C at first, and the Cubs are a half-decent offensive ball club. Sign a B at first, deal Fukudome for a C+ outfielder, and this team might actually be 3/4 decent. Offensively.

Maybe I’m being too optimistic and simplistic, but I don’t think things are as bad as they looked during last night’s 18-1 drubbing at the hands of the Brewers. It does make me wonder about the state of this pitching staff, and I’ll look at that tomorrow. For now, just take some solace in the fact that, while the baseball gods might not permit us to go all the way with the best team in the league, we have a good chance of hooking up with a half-decent team and maybe even getting to second base.

The Economics of the Cubs Dodgers Deal

If the buzz leading up to the trade that sent Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, and cash to the Dodgers for Wallach, Smit, and DeWitt, the primary snag prolonging the negotiations was the matter of just how much if any cash should be smuggled along with Lilly’s things. The number everyone was throwing around was $4 million. Ignoring the talent of the various pieces being swapped, I wanted to look at how much the Cubs are saving by making this deal.

I don’t know how anyone ascertains exactly how much is left on a player’s deal, but looking at the regular season alone, the Cubs had about 36% of their games left to play. I know that’s not perfect, but it’s close enough for me: it would leave Lilly with $4.37 million remaining on his contract and Theriot with $947 thousand (MLB Trade Rumors put them at $4.24 million and $918K). Like I said, it’s not perfect, but I’m okay with that margin of error for the sake of argument.

What I do know is that a lot of Cubs fans really liked Ted Lilly and/or Ryan Theriot, and the idea of jettisoning them to LA for a younger version of Theriot and paying the Dodgers to take Lilly strikes many fans as Hendriotic. But it’s not quite that simple or depressing.

The Cubs will pay the Dodgers $2.5 million and (by my crude calculations) pay Blake DeWitt less than $150,000 for the remainder of this year (and a cost-controlled salary for the foreseeable future); the two prospects will also cost the Cubs a negligible amount. That’s the money the Cubs have to say goodbye to as a result of the deal: $2.7 million or so.

Even using the slightly reduced numbers for Lilly and Theriot’s remaining contracts (about $5.16 million), that relieves the Cubs of about $2.6 million of payroll. Yes, it could potentially cost the Cubs the two compensatory draft picks they would have received if they had offered Lilly arbitration and lost him on the free agent market (or they’ll have to yield picks of their own if Hendry re-signs him). But there’s no guarantee Hendry would have offered Lilly arbitration.

As it is, the Cubs have an extra $2.6 million or so heading into next offseason. Obviously it would be best spent on the first of three installments paid an overpriced and injury-prone free-agent outfielder’s signing bonus, but we can only hope that dream comes to fruition.

I’ve really just wasted my time on this, haven’t I?

Zambrano: I’m Sorry, Cubs Fans

Carlos Zambrano is sorry, and he wants the world to know. The statements he made (quoted in that ESPN Chicago article) are pretty much exactly what people are looking for from a guy after an embarrassing episode. The video is more an apology to the fans, which, again, is exactly what the Cubs organization is expecting from Zambrano.
They’re also expecting him to pitch better, so we can only hope there’s some connection between his composure in general and his abilities on the mound. I’ve always doubted that to be true, but I hope I’m wrong. Will writing in his anger journal every time he gets mad really help him locate his cutter?
Hey, maybe it will. No one who watches the Cubs with any interest can deny that emotional investment in this team has its share of physiological effects. Fans get nervous during games, so players undoubtedly do too. The difference in most professional athletes, or any public performer for that matter, is that they can harness the nervous energy as a catalyst, propelling them to even better levels of performance than they would otherwise achieve. That’s why we cheer, isn’t it, to provoke such a response? 
Anger isn’t usually so beneficial, but it can be. Vin Scully has said that Jackie Robinson played better when he was angry. His vitriolic reaction to the hatred he faced fueled his performance without causing him to explode. Most human beings don’t respond that way, but some do (my only other example is Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump, so I’ll move on). I don’t think anyone suspects Zambrano of being one of those rare exceptions, at least not anymore. 
From what Zambrano is saying, much to the pleasure of Jim Hendry and the rest of the Cubs’ front office (and potential trade partners, I suppose), he’s taking his anger management therapy seriously and views it in a positive light. Some people, with Ron Santo as their most vocal leader, think Zambrano’s anger and lack of composure is the only thing stopping him from being an all-world pitcher. If they’re right, the next couple of months should be a lot of fun to watch.

What the Past Year Has Told Us About the Ricketts(es)

Pete, Todd, Laura, and Tom Ricketts discuss plans to launch a Fat Albert cover band.

I’ve heard from a lot of Cubs fans who believe the Jim Hendry not-yet firing (and the fire sale that still lacks the spark The Boss told us was essential for such matters) tells you all you really need to know about the Ricketts family. There isn’t consensus on what that is, but people’s opinions on the matter have galvanized considerably. Here’s the gist of some of the varied views:

The Ricketts are typical fans who plan on catering to their own kind. They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re fueled by emotions and dreams and rainbows and latent racism, and deep down they probably have no desire to win as long as everyone enjoys their time at the ballpark.

We knew the Ricketts were fans when their names emerged as candidates to buy the team, but I don’t know what they’ve done that reflects the mob mentality of fans in general. Some say the Ricketts were behind Milton Bradley’s suspension. Others point to the decision to stay in Mesa. In my mind, both of those were no-brainers although the former seemed more like a vitriolic response straight from Hendry while the latter resembled shrewd business and political manipulation, not blind adherence to tradition. And keeping Hendry hardly represents the typical fan sentiment.

I just don’t see how a fan mentality has reared its irrational head in any significant way just yet.

The Ricketts are slimy suits who care only about money. I try to make it clear whether by illustration or direct statement that I know nothing about business (the lack of ads on this site says that quite loudly), but my gut tells me that the net return on the Ricketts family’s investment in the Cubs is somewhere along the lines of -$800 million. People like to point to George Steinbrenner’s windfall from increasing the value of the Yankees franchise 100 fold, but The non-Springsteen Boss bought low on the Bronx Bombers. The Cubs are never going to be a $2 billion franchise, let alone a $100 billion franchise.

Yes, they have implemented a number of revenue gimmicks: the ticket pre-sale, the noodle, and the Who Wants to Be A Middle Reliever? game show. But keeping Hendry and endorsing his “we’re not rebuilding, we’re competing” mentality is not the move of someone who prizes revenue over winning. Hendry doesn’t exactly follow the Andy McPhail Guide to Winning on the Cheap. If the Ricketts just want revenue, their going about it all wrong, and I don’t think they got rich by being that stupid.

The Ricketts don’t know baseball and are too stubborn to listen to reason. The first part may be completely true, but they haven’t done anything to show that; they certainly haven’t done anything to indicate they aren’t open to change. Hiring Ari Kaplan as a stats guy was, I guarantee, not done to appease the lustful longings of Jim Hendry. Maybe Crane Kenney had something to do with it, but who cares? What does Crane Kenney do anyway? Granted, maybe the fact that there’s no impressive answer to that question is part of the problem, but I don’t think that’s the reason the Cubs’ record is what it is. It would be nice if the Cubs had a baseball genius as president of the organization, but Kenney isn’t standing in the way of progress. He’s probably more there for his business acumen than anything, and the Cubs franchise is a rather big business.

The bottom line, though, is that Tom Ricketts really hasn’t made a single baseball move to this point. Lou’s retiring on his own. Kenney and Hendry still have jobs. They play walk-up music now. The only thing Ricketts has really shown is some semblance of patience. I thought that was a virtue.

I don’t think we’ll get an accurate read on Tom Ricketts as owner until 2011. We’ll see, over a year removed from the ownership transition, how much Jim Hendry is allowed to spend and how many prospects he’s allowed to ship out. We’ll see what happens to ticket prices. We’ll see a new manager hired, but not by Tom Ricketts. He said he’ll let the baseball people make the baseball decisions, and I don’t think he would keep Jim Hendry as GM if he didn’t intend to do that. If the owner doesn’t agree with what Hendry wants to do, he has little incentive to continue to employ him.

And if Hendry fails to deliver with a gun* to his head, that’s when Tom Ricketts’ ownership style will truly come to light. When he begins the interview process for new GMs, he’ll run into a few people who tell him the Cubs can’t win until they clean house. He’ll hear from people who believe the GM should have more control over on-field decisions and policies than the manager. He’ll interview a person or two who think day baseball is killing the Cubs, that sabermetrics wed to scouting can end the curse, or that putting Cashner in the bullpen has retarded his career as a starter beyond repair. What he does when he has to make that choice, or if he allows someone as baseball-illiterate as Crane Kenney to make that choice for him, then we’ll know something significant about this family whose name defies pluralization.

But right now we know very little. At least I do, and I stand behind that.

Top Ten Non-Player Trades the Cubs Should Make Right Now

Make this move, and I’d never turn away from the TV for a second.
Photos from lamoltihalstein.wordpress.com/ and Mary Altaffer / AP 

With the trade deadline just over a week away, the theories, rumors, and proposals about who’s going where and for what are running amok across the information superhighway with reckless abandon. And while the mainstream media and the superbloggers out there would have you believe only players can be traded, that won’t stop me from encouraging the Cubs to take their mercantile thinking outside of its proverbial cardboard enclosure.

Here are ten trades that could improve this ballclub right now and in the future, and they don’t have to deal a single player:

10. Chicago’s weather  and a half a pizza for San Diego’s weather
Do I really need to tell anyone how bad the weather sucks in Chicago? No, I don’t. But it sucks. I’ve never been to San Diego, but I hear it’s nice. I don’t want to have to go there to confirm the matter, so I expect Hendry to bring the deal to me. And there’s still half a pizza left for him to enjoy, so no complaints.

9. Len Kasper to Crazytown for Mike Tyson and a sedative to be named later
This deal has so much upside for both parties, it makes me want to gnaw my ear off.

8. Jim Hendry to DD for a box of donuts
It’s not that I think he’s doing such a bad job, it’s just that the Gift-of-the-Magi irony would be, quite literally, delicious. I love delicious irony.

7. The Wrigley Scoreboard to Navy Pier for the IMAX screen
I really want to see Inception. I’ve heard it’s quite good, and I’m tired of trying to avoid all the spoilers. So to everyone at the theater watching the score get updated manually, allow me to spoil the ending for you: Cubs lose.

6. “The Friendly Confines” nickname to the United Center for “The Madhouse on Madison”
I know, Wrigley’s not on Madison. And the UC isn’t all that friendly. But it would be nice for the place known as the Friendly Confines to know what it’s like to see a championship banner raised to the rafters. Then the Cubs can re-sign the name in the offseason and it can tell us all about it.

5. The men’s room troughs to Hell for whatever it is they pee in there
I mean . . . really.

4. Cubs history to Croatia in exchange for their entire Summer Olympics legacy
Because they’ve won one more gold medal than the Cubs have won World Series. That’s a 50% improvement there, pal. Although, if it’s true that sports history has come to an end, this deal becomes moot.

3. Cub fans to the USS Enterprise for Spock, Data, Uhura, and Deanna Troi
Cubs fans need to be more logical if we’re to survive another century. But there’s no sense in putting the Bud Light Fan Cam to an end. Well, okay, maybe there is, but let’s not get carried away.

2. The Wrigley Field press corps to the Ringling Bros. Circus for a team of poorly trained monkeys
If the beat reporters are going to sling crap at Cubs players and coaches, it might as well be a literal exercise.

1. The 7th Inning Stretch Guest Conductor tradition to the American League for the DH
So you’re telling me if you had to choose between Denise Richards singing and Ted Lilly not hitting, you’d have to think twice about it?

Don’t worry. His days of batting for the Cubs are probably gone, but we’re not covering that here.

A Portrait of Cubbieness

Ricketts and Hendry reflect on the Piniella era: it’s not success, but it ain’t that bad.

Now that we know Lou Piniella’s days as manager of the Chicago Cubs have a definitive number (while Jim Hendry’s do not) and we’ve all endured the initial explosive reaction from media both social and mainstream, it’s time to take a deep breath of whatever gaseous substance you wish to inhale and look at where the Cubs really stand. Between the lines of yesterday’s press conference is a rather clear portrait of what the near future of the Cubs is going to look like.

While I can’t argue too fiercely with interpretations to the contrary, I don’t think it’s that bad. Let’s strip down yesterday’s off-the-field developments to bare facts.

Lou Piniella is retiring after this season. I always thought this was the plan, but until yesterday Lou had discussed his longterm outlook with a certain je-ne-sais-Favre. Speculation swirls as to why Lou’s agent let the news slip at this point in the season, and I can answer that question with resounding certainty: I don’t care. I mean, really, between the trades that aren’t happening and the NL Central deficit that isn’t shrinking, there isn’t much left to distract from. The reasons behind the news leak or Lou’s decision to retire construct a thoroughly boring mystery. I trust Lou when he says he’s retiring because he wants to retire and not because of the product on the field. No one really cares about the why, it’s the what next that’s generating real buzz. And Lou’s replacement is far less important than the matter of Hendry’s job security.

Jim Hendry still has a job. A lot of Cub fans are angry about this because of how awful they think Jim Hendry is. While I think most fans have given Hendry an unfair and ill-informed job evaluation, I’ll save that argument for another day (or for smarter people). What’s even more baffling to me is how urgently people want Hendry gone. Tom Ricketts’ vote of confidence in Hendry midway through a horrendously disappointing season in which injuries can’t be used as an excuse at all strikes many fans as a betrayal of his initial promise as owner to hold his front office accountable. I call bull drama. Let’s look at what Ricketts said:

Jim is our general manager full-stop. He will be leading the effort to find our new manager for next year and will be our general manager going into next year.

I’ll tell you exactly what that means:

A) Tom Ricketts uses expressions like “full-stop,” and that’s kind of weird.

B) Ricketts viewed 2010 as a transition year. After buying the team in a process that took longer than he expected in an economy that sucked harder than he had predicted, the opportunity for Hendry to adequately build a champion just wasn’t there, in Tom’s opinion. He at least figured that it wasn’t enough of a slam dunk to expect a 2010 World Series crown. This season was Jim Hendry’s grace period. You can throw Piniella in that mix as well, but his retirement makes their plan toward Lou a nondecision. Firing Lou this year would just force them to pay someone else to babysit the failure.

C) Jim Hendry has one last chance to build a winner. If the Cubs don’t legitimately compete and succeed in 2011, Hendry will be out of a job. If they’re under .500 by the time June 2011 rolls around, Jim will be gone. If they haven’t sniffed first place by July, he’s fired. If the Cubs reach the postseason and put up a bagel, Hendry will have eaten his last donut as the Cubs’ GM.

D) There will be no fire sale. Not this year, anyway. Jim Hendry will manage this team, generally speaking, like a man fighting for his job, not a man building for the future. He won’t be allowed to mortgage the future entirely—don’t expect any Soriano-type free-agent deals that completely restrict Hendry’s successor (although, Hendry likely had very little to do with the terms of Soriano’s contract). But Hendry’s mindset will be win-now all the way. I’m not saying the Cubs will compete, but Hendry will be fired if they don’t.

E) The next Cubs manager will be the guy Hendry thinks gives the team the best chance to win. He won’t hire Ryne Sandberg if he’s not satisfied he can win now, nor will he do so if there’s even the remotest possibility he can sign Joe Torre. Jim Hendry knows he’s in no position to give anybody a chance to prove themselves because this is his last chance to do the same. So, if Jim Hendry has anything to say about it (as Ricketts has emphasized that he does), you can forget the marketing-driven decisions and the goodwill gestures. Hendry will be desperate to win, not to coddle the fan base.

F) (It seems fitting that this list end in F) Success for the rest of this season will be measured in expiring salary that can be dumped. There’s a slight chance Hendry would trade for a significant impact player on the block provided they can negotiate a contract extension (with a complimentary No-Trade-Clause). Then the off-season will be a mad rush to trade whatever remaining baggage Hendry has no more use for and to sign his next free-agent man crush.

My 2011 prediction: Joe Torre is the next manager of the Chicago Cubs, which will improve the team by exactly half a win. Hendry’s assorted trades and signings will improve the team by 4 wins. The Cubs’ luck will improve by 3 games. The Cubs will win the wild card, get swept again in the first round by the Giants, and Jim Hendry will be fired. It will be the last time the Cubs make the playoffs until 2017.

Meh. Could be worse.

Second-Half Survival Strategies for Cubs Fans

The goal is to capture the flag. When that fails, try to avoid looking like a total idiot (unless idiocy is your strategy).

The Cubs begin play today 10 games under .500 and 10 games behind the Central Division’s new leaders, the St. Louis Cardinals. They’re 4th in the Central and 9th (9.5 GB) in the Wild Card standings. None of those circumstances fill me with joy, but the state of the 2010 Cubs season makes me feel a lot like Miracle Max overlooking the Man in Black’s mostly dead body: I’ve seen worse.

Aside from going through the team’s pockets to look for loose change, the prevailing opinion among pessimists, realists, and guarded optimists has been that the Cubs should hold a fire sale. Toss the bulky expiring contracts overboard like so much ballast from the sinking ship and try to sail again next year (or the year after that {or the year after that}). Other more delightedly delusional fans think it’s not too late for the Cubs (yes, the Chicago Cubs) to make a run at the postseason. These fans seem open to a trade or two, but the only white flags they want to see waving at Wrigley are the ones of the rarely used W variety.

I don’t know what the Cubs should (or even can) do, but I want to help you, my fellow Cubs fan, understand what your options are as our team finishes out the remaining 70 games in this seemingly interminable season. Is it too late to hope, and what should we be hoping for? Let’s survey the landscape and see what mindset will result in the fewest headaches and/or heartbreaks.

The division-leading Cardinals have a .554 winning percentage, which puts them on pace for a 90-win season. For the Cubs to win 90 games, they need to go 49-21 the rest of the way. That’s a .700 winning percentage. A lot of people reference the resurgent White Sox as the standard of improbable turnarounds, but even before their three-game skid against the Twins, the White Sox previous 70-game stretch was an impressive 43-27, a .614 win percentage.

The Cards and Reds may both fall short of 90 wins, but not by much. I highly doubt the Cubs could win the division with 84 wins, and that’s exactly what a Sox-esque turnaround would leave them with. The Wild Card race is on almost the same track, so there’s no need for further exploration. The Cubs need about three miracles to reach the postseason. So here are your options:

Keep Hope Alive
This is the big risk/big reward tactic. There’s almost no chance you’ll be right, and everyone will label you the village idiot for as long as you hold the opinion and a turncoat the moment you give up. If you wind up being right, you can brag and rejoice in the integrity of your faith, but . . . yeah, it ain’t happening.

Keep Quiet
This approach requires you to become the cliché. Take it one game at a time. Stay within yourself. Don’t try to do more than you can do. As a fan, it’s not a bad place to be, especially if the Cubs play half decent and the front office does nothing especially inspiring. You don’t get carried away in positive or negative emotion and you don’t get burned. People might call you a bandwagon rider or fair-weather fan, but it’s better than idiot.

Burn Hope Alive
You want the fire sale. You want the number 1 pick in the 2011 draft. You want every player gone and every staff member fired. Except Larry Rothschild. He’s a lifer now like Yosh Kawano. But everyone else can go. Your target for victory is 2013 at the earliest because the entire Cubs organization will consist of rookies and prospects by the time the fire sale is over. The emotional benefit is that Cubs wins are still nice and Cubs losses are even better. On the downside, though, your dependence shifts from the product on the field to the quality of the off-the-field decisions. If you thought Ryan Theriot swinging at the first pitch was infuriating, good luck putting up with Jim Hendry’s inactivity. You’ll also be labeled “not a real fan,” which, I’m guessing, you’ve learned to live with.

Wait for Heaven to Come in 2011
If you’re in this group, Jim Hendry will welcome you with open arms. When Lou says the team is more seller than buyer, he’s not speaking on a hunch. But Hendry has tempered any fan dreams of a fire sale by saying that any move the Cubs make will be to help the team for next year. It could happen, I guess. The upside is, you can enjoy making fun of how bad the team is now while still reveling in the occasional win. The rub is that the offseason becomes a hot stove headache. You probably won’t agree with a single move Jim Hendry (or his possible replacement) makes the entire time even though you approve of his general approach to stay competitive. You’ll still be regarded as a fan, but you probably won’t enjoy yourself.

Cheer for a Good Team
Sorry, but none of these options smell like survival to me. If you’re looking to enjoy baseball, you might be better off picking a team with a better prognosis. You’ll be branded a traitor, but, like LeBron James, your chances at celebrating a championship will go way up.

I wish the outlook was cheerier, folks, but being a Cub fan and winning don’t exactly go hand in hand. If you enjoy this Way of [L]ife (which I do, for whatever reason) just bear it. Grinning is optional.

Z, Interrupted

Z angry! Z smash!!!

Carlos Zambrano’s rampage of terror has finally been stopped. After storming through the Cub dugout, terrorizing a camera crew outside of U.S. Cellular Field, and ravaging a Brazilian steakhouse with Ozzie Guillen, Zambrano finally succumbed to Cubs staff armed with tranquilizer cannons and electromagnetically powered titanium restraining belts. It took a few days to gain approval for his ultimate confinement while the ACLU and PETA wrangled to determine which group should be defending his rights.

Finally the dust has settled, freeing Jim Hendry to inform the public about the protective measures in place to minimize the damage Zambrano can inflict upon society. Long story short, we can breathe easy until after the All-Star Break. Big Z won’t be around to hurt any of us for quite some time. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Hendry’s statement, point by reassuring point:

Beginning Wednesday, Carlos will undergo a treatment program . . .

This is where a lot of the mainstream media have begun to water down the severity of the issue, referring to the prescribed course of action as “anger management” or “counseling.” Make no mistake: this is treatment. You don’t often hear people say Carlos Zambrano has an “anger problem.”  The term you hear thrown around almost universally is nut job.

So don’t leave this happy press conference thinking Carlos is going to be attending a few classes, some private sessions, and some group therapy. This is a serious medical issue that will require the utmost in clinical expertise.

. . . with mutually agreed upon doctors from the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball.

Now wait a second, here. Are these doctors selected from the ranks of the Players’ Association and Major League Baseball, or are they selected and agreed upon by those two parties? Doc Halladay is a hell of a pitcher, but he’s not qualified to take on a head case like Big Z. I’m going to go ahead and assume that the MLBPA and MLB will together avail themselves of the best psychiatric minds in the world.

Whatever crack military analysts have been  predicting the movements of Osama bin Laden, pull them off that cold case and put them on Zambrano. We need to know what strain of inhuman pathology has sent him down this path of self-destruction and what we can expect him to try next.

Basically, he will have to follow the treatment for his issues and be evaluated properly . . .

I’m sure the Zambrano family and both of his fans appreciate Hendry glossing over Carlos’s soulless predilection for torture as “his issues,” but the bottom line is that drastic experimental procedures need to be administered swiftly and relentlessly to ensure some semblance of public safety when Zambrano ventures back into society. Godzilla had issues. Zambrano has serious problems.

. . . and if the program is acted on properly in accordance to what the doctors they signify he needs to work on and improve on, and follow their directives, Carlos will not be reinstated any time until after the All-Star break.

Wait . . . what? If the weapons-grade lithium injections and shock treatment is properly executed and Zambrano stays conscious throughout the sensory deprivation and neural reprogramming, Zambrano won’t be reinstated until after the ASB? So what happens if one of those pillars of personal transformation should crumble? Euthanasia? Siberian exile? Trade to the White Sox? I guess we’ll cross that chasm into the eternal abyss when we come to it.

We’ve obviously had a lot of transgressions with Carlos in the past . . .

I hope Jim was just being polite with that first-person plural. If  Hendry, Lou, et al. have had transgressions with Carlos, I’d hate to see what scarlet letters emblazon their breasts. BP, maybe? But since the punishment is being prescribed to just Carlos, I can only assume that Zambrano alone has transgressed while Hendry, Piniella, the Ricketts family, and all of society have been mere victims of (not participators in) his tumultuous binges of iniquity.

. . . so I think we all agreed that it was time to go and get help, then address the apologies later.

Yes, we need to call in the authorities on this one. There’s plenty of time for tear-filled remorse in between sodium pentothal injections. That’s why they let you watch.

It’s an unfortunate situation.

Yes, it was completely a function of luck. The powers of fortune and fate transpired to bring Carlos’s demons to the surface. This “situation” had nothing to do with Hendry and Piniella moving Zambrano to the bullpen (which Hendry had stocked with rookies, pet projects, washed-up veterans, and injuries in waiting) just long enough for him to adjust to the move and then to draw him back into the rotation. The incessant criticism of Zambrano’s better-than-average 2009 (in which the Cub offense behind him scored an average of .0002 runs per month, hence the single-digit win total) wasn’t meant to make Z angry. The repetitive trade rumors leaked by the front office (despite Zambrano’s insistence that he loved Chicago and would never leave) were immaterial to Zambrano’s psychological condition. Oh no, Z has a medical problem brought on by the fickle middle finger of fortune.

. . . and His actions were certainly inappropriate and as I said on Friday, those actions toward his teammates and staff will not be tolerated.

Of course. This organization does not tolerate furious yelling. They just incite it.

That’s why we tried to work to a conclusion as efficiently and as quickly as we could.

Had they the budget to hire a sniper on short notice, the conclusion would have been much quicker and more efficient. But in a world of backloaded contracts and suffocating debt relief, a suspension and a marathon date with the league shrink will have to do.

It’s really pretty amazing how Hendry has managed to make Zambrano’s outburst look like the mad confession of a serial killer. The past few days just gave Hendry’s office time to find the bodies. A lot of people have criticized Hendry, Lou, and Zambrano’s teammates for berating Z so openly, but it’s really genius PR work. The excessive complaints, the drama, the mystery of Zambrano’s whereabouts, and the complete absence of any definitive statement from Carlos himself have all created this grand illusion that Zambrano is criminally insane.

Hendry didn’t have the slightest difficulty getting approval for intensive “treatment” for Zambrano because he made it so clear to the world that Zambrano is a sick, sick man. Lou seemed pretty calm in the dugout when the incident happened. After the game he was cool and collected but, admittedly, embarrassed. By the time evening fell, the shock of it all came crashing down and Lou was suddenly unable to eat.

Jim Hendry was likewise furious. Beside himself . . . with glee. Hendry has been looking to get rid of Zambrano for awhile now. He didn’t want him in the rotation. He couldn’t put him in the bullpen. He couldn’t trade him, release him, or send him down to the minors. What’s left? Thank DeRosa for the restricted list!

But didn’t all this diminish Zambrano’s trade value? Not at all! Don’t you see the evil genius at work? This isn’t a character flaw in Zambrano. This is a medical issue. He’s getting treatment. Zambrano’s temper is about to undergo Tommy John surgery, and the recovery time, apparently, is about three weeks. Whoever gets Zambrano at the end of July won’t be getting a moody, ineffective reliever, they’ll be getting the finest Carlos modern medicine can buy, one with the confidence, sensitivity, and electric fastball that can make him the ace of any staff.

It’s too bad. I liked angry Z. He made me laugh and, unlike almost everyone else on this team, he didn’t make me yawn until I wanted to pass out. I’m not defending what Zambrano did. Truth be told, I don’t even know what Zambrano did. Whatever it was he did or said, and whatever fractured reasoning was behind it, I highly doubt it calls for a lobotomy.

Just Deserts

My wife and I took the boys to see Toy Story 3 today. It’s a fine movie, but it reminded me why I don’t go to movies very often anymore. I told my youngest you eat popcorn when you go to the theater, but I didn’t tell him it cost $6.00 for a bucket of stale, burnt-toast flavored not-goodness.

And as I shelled out good money for something I knew would make a negative contribution to the cinematic experience (yet fulfill my popcorn promises), I thought about what a terrible business practice it is to so blatantly screw over your customers. But then I inwardly scolded myself. I can’t be that critical of a business practice if I’m stupid enough to fall prey to it (and I’m standing in line with my fellow intellectual paralytics). I shouldn’t have told my son it’s tradition to eat popcorn at the movies. I should have told him that movie theaters treat ticket holders with contempt and that any smart person would refuse to accept it.

But I didn’t, and I got what I deserved. And everyone in the Cubs universe gets their just deserts*, too.

Carlos Zambrano invented his own personal brand of crazy and will be punitively sent to the bullpen upon his indefinite return from suspension. Does he deserve it? Why not. You act like that in front of people who don’t like you and have the power to make you pay for it, you know there will be consequences.

Cubs’ management showed with this bullpen shift that Zambrano’s initial stint as a reliever had nothing to do with baseball. Hendry and Lou wanted Z in his place even though they knew he didn’t belong in the bullpen—he belonged in the doghouse. So they got what they deserved, an angry, ineffective, jerked-around anti-ace. They should have seen this blow-up coming, because Z isn’t exactly an easy-going flower of a man. Doing something so stupid as giving their $91-million pitcher the Samardzija treatment makes much less sense than signing either of those guys in the first place.

Zambrano, meanwhile, deserves both his money (he pitched very well in his early career and would have commanded an even larger contract on the free agent market) and the foul treatment. He gave the Cubs a hometown discount (yeah, believe it or not, a discount), but he should have known it came at a higher price than just a few million dollars. He signed with a team he should have predicted would screw him over. Shame on you, Carlos. You and the Cubs are each other’s just deserts.

Jim Hendry, you’ve created something of a trend with your indefinite suspensions, ironic since you were responsible for signing the players you suspended. Why you would make someone a mega-millionaire and then ground him is up to you, but when the message you send fails to result in winning baseball, the dizzying mess of bleating, whining, and winless chemistry will be well deserved.

Lou will walk away from the Cubs at the end of this season with a lot of extra millions, a couple of extra headaches, a slightly higher blood pressure reading, and only the slightest hint of regret. He knew what he was walking into when he took the helm in Wrigleyville, and he knew the glory and the criticism that would pour down upon him with every win and loss.

Derrek Lee and his fellow teammates, all of whom received a vicious tongue-lashing from Zambrano, fully deserved to be criticized publicly by a crazy man.

Kevin Millar deserves to be working TV with the opportunity to laugh at the misfortunes of his former spring-training team.

The Ricketts family profess to have been fans of this team and yet still saw fit to pay nearly a billion dollars to make it their own. They got what they paid for. They’re the proud owners of a one-of-a-kind masterpiece of awful. Congrats. Your just deserts just happen to be plunging in value at the moment. Go ahead and raise ticket prices again, why don’tcha?

I mustn’t forget my favorite group of friends, the fans. We cheer for a team we know won’t win. Some of us, myself included, are willing to pay upwards of $60 to sit in the blazing hot sun and bask in the glow of a 12-0 suckfest. I deserved what I got, a good time with friends, an uber-fast lopsided loss, and the freakiest farmer’s tan I’ve ever seen.  Should I be upset that the Cubs are now running a promotion to dispense those same tickets at a $10 rate (which is nearly doubled by fees) or that other fans can buy scalped tickets for even less, sans convenience fees but with twice as much convenience?

No, I should be just a bit more aware of the idiocy I’ve allowed to run my life. This feeling of anger and apathy swirling together in a delicious angst-ridden suckcicle is my just desert and I must suck it.

*No, I didn’t spell it wrong. Look it up.

Zut Alors!

Video clip certainly to be taken down by MLB in 5…4…3…2…

Carlos Zambrano got into a fight with Derrek Lee, probably because Derrek was the first one to respond to the tirade Z directed at the entire dugout after a rocky 4-run 1st inning against the White Sox. I guess you could say he overreacted.

Overreaction is contagious. Twitter exploded. Paul Sullivan called for Z’s immediate fine and suspension. Gordon Wittenmyer said the Cubs couldn’t win with Zambrano and that no team would want him. Sox fans all rushed to the obituary section to make sure they hadn’t died, because yesterday felt a whole lot like heaven. Steve Stone took the chance to call Zambrano a coward who years ago had “sucker punched” a helpless Michael Barrett. A few Cubs bloggers woke from dormant apathy to comment on the matter. It has been pretty much overreactions galore since Z stamped the base for the final out of the 1st.

Lou Piniella, the man Cubs fans have been begging to overreact, actually took a pretty even-tempered approach to the whole thing.Then Jim Hendry suspended him . . . indefinitely. Overreaction? Eh.

To borrow a word from His Level-Headedness, Look . . . Zambrano was over the edge in his tirade. But tirade is just a way to subtly and verbally overreact to someone who is talking loud. Hendry called it savage, and maybe it looked that way. Okay, it looked that way. But what harm did it do?

Lou called it embarrassing. Well, guess what, Lou? The Cubs as an organization being embarrassed is a net change in status of zero point zero, zero. Losing is embarrassing, and that’s been the Cubs’ trademark this season. The only difference between Z’s tantrum and the reactions exhibited by the team in the 72 previous games is that Zambrano went down kicking and screaming.

I suppose a suspension is in order as a political gesture, but in reality, of the small percentage of Cub fans, players, and staff who still care about what the Cubs do, how many of us haven’t at some point felt the urge to yell at the lot of them like Zambrano did? I know I have. That doesn’t justify what Zambrano did . . . but I understand.

To those who want to trade or release Zambrano after the shortest start of his career (a record he seems to break with regularity) and maybe his career’s loudest hissy fit, I really hope you aren’t in charge. Let’s just stop the overreactions. Carlos Zambrano is 29 years old, and he can still pitch. He is erratic in every sense of the word, but he is not done. To trade him or release him now would be a plan designed to get the very smallest return (or rather the largest resulting debt) out of a guy who still, yesterday’s lowlight reel to the contrary, has a lot to offer a major league ball club.

Based on what? Oh, I don’t know, his career numbers. The obvious fact that he still gives a crap. The Lifetime movie of the week, Not Without My Gatorade Cooler, where a hotheaded Venezuelan starter finds love, hope, and absolution in the arms of a gruff, oft misunderstood Hobbit with questionable journalistic integrity but a heart that just won’t quit.

Alright, overreact if you must, but please feel free to do so in the comments below.

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